Recruits who enter service as heavy cigarette smokers are nearly twice as likely as nonsmokers to be separated early, mostly due to “substandard behavior,” according to new research aimed at easing the U.S. military’s disturbingly high attrition rate.

For all its achievements over three decades, the volunteer military has had one chronic problem: an alarming washout rate. A third of all new entrants fail to complete initial service obligations, driving up recruiting and training costs.

The services long have used only two yardsticks to measure recruit quality: entrance test scores and a high school diploma. For example, even as the Army has failed in recent months to meet recruiting targets, it refuses to accept more than 10 percent of its recruits from applicants who dropped out of high school but passed a General Educational Development (GED) test.

Now it appears pre-service smoking habits could well be the equal of a diploma for predicting if a recruit will succeed in service, said Dr. Eli S. Flyer, a former senior manpower analyst with the Defense Department.

Flyer and Dr. Mark Eitelberg, a professor at the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, Calif., recently studied first-term attrition among 6,950 Navy recruits who entered service from February through May 2001. The recruits had filled out a biographical questionnaire, detailing any past experiences with smoking, truancy, sleeping difficulties, discipline problems in school, alcohol and marijuana usage and other pre-service behaviors.

Among recruits who identified themselves as heavy smokers, saying they consumed a pack or more a day, 50 percent failed to complete their enlistment. Among light smokers, those smoking less than a pack daily, 37 percent left service early. Nonsmokers had an attrition rate of 27 percent.

“High school misbehavior, criminal offenses, drug use, psychological difficulties and authority-related problems were all more prevalent among recruits with a smoking history than among nonsmokers,” the researchers concluded.

In an interview, Flyer said earlier military studies had established a link between smoking and attrition. The value of the new study is in explaining why: Youths who smoke have a greater propensity to misbehave and to reject authority, thus increasing the odds of failure in service.

Of the recruits studied, 16 percent reported being heavy smokers, 32 percent light smokers and 52 percent nonsmokers. Heavy smokers were three times more likely than nonsmokers to have a record of truancy, multiple suspensions from high school and non-traffic-related legal offenses. Even if they are high school graduates, heavy smokers still have a higher incidence of misbehavior than nonsmokers with diplomas.

“The characteristics that go along with dropping out of school are the characteristics associated with being a youth smoker,” Flyer said. Attrition among recruits who are both heavy smokers and high school dropouts is 75 percent.

There is significance, too, in how early teens begin to smoke, Flyer said. The earlier they begin, the less successful they are likely to be in service. That pattern also holds true for tattoos and body piercing, he said.

Smoking as a predictor of success in the military is less effective if the habit began in service. In that case, smoking is more likely a consequence of job stress or of mimicking peers rather than resisting authority.

“That’s a very different bird than a pre-service smoker,” Flyer said.

And smoking remains a problem generally in the military, despite years of efforts to reduce it.

Just more than half — 51 percent — of all servicemembers smoked in 1980. Smoking declined to a 29.9 percent level in 1998, but smoking increased to 33.8 percent according to the 2002 survey of Health Related Behaviors Among Military Personnel.

While a policy to recruit only nonsmokers would lower attrition, Flyer said he believes it would not be as effective as identifying youth who smoked heavily at some time. That’s because the characteristics that lead them to become heavy smokers don’t disappear when they stop smoking.

The Navy recruiting command funded the study but Flyer said he doesn’t expect to see the results used anytime soon to tighten enlistment standards. The recruiting community historically has resisted imposing any new hurdles for recruit volunteers to clear.

But Flyer said smoking histories and other biographical screening techniques could be useful if the services need to expand their pool of prospective recruits to get sufficient volunteers — for example, if they begin to accept more GED applicants and other people with nontraditional school credentials rather than diplomas.

Stars and Stripes editor Pat Dickson contributed to this report.

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